Se­nior Scots Tories call for party U-turn on tu­ition fees

●Back free univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion to chal­lenge SNP for power, group says

The Scotsman - - Front Page - By PARIS GOURTSOYAN­NIS West­min­ster Cor­re­spon­dent

A split has emerged within the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tives over the party’s op­po­si­tion to free univer­sity tu­ition, with a group of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans pri­vately ar­gu­ing for a his­toric U-turn on the pol­icy be­fore the next Holy­rood elec­tion.

Sev­eral se­nior elected fig­ures are un­der­stood to be un­happy with their party’s stance on tu­ition fees and be­lieve it must change for the Tories to chal­lenge the SNP for power.

“There are a num­ber of us in the party that be­lieve the pol­icy should change as things stand,” one Scot­tish Tory par­lia­men­tar­ian told The Scots­man.

Back­ing free univer­sity tu­ition would mark a dra­matic de­par­ture from Con­ser­va­tive or­tho­doxy and draw the clear­est di­vid­ing line yet be­tween the Tories in Scot­land and in Eng­land.

Asked whether the party was com­mit­ted to its ex­ist­ing pol­icy on in­tro­duc­ing a £6,000 “grad­u­ate fee”, a Scot­tish Tory spokesman said a re­view was de­vel­op­ing pol­icy ahead of the next Holy­rood elec­tion.

Three weeks be­fore the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion that saw her party

gain 12 MPS, Ruth David­son em­braced an­other uni­ver­sal “give­away” at the heart of the SNP’S iden­tity, an­nounc­ing that the Tories would no longer seek to rein­tro­duce pre­scrip­tion charges. Now se­nior party fig­ures want her to make the same call on tu­ition fees, the Tory source said.

“Ahead of the last elec­tion, we made the an­nounce­ment on free pre­scrip­tions,” the source said. “The other big pol­icy is tu­ition fees.

“When vot­ers de­cide on a change of gov­ern­ment, it hasn’t been be­cause the win­ners have of­fered to­tal, rad­i­cal change, but be­cause they’ve rep­re­sented a de­gree of con­ti­nu­ity like Tony Blair in 1997.”

The source added: “There’s the is­sue of un­fair­ness, with many young peo­ple not able to get a univer­sity place be­cause of free tu­ition. Peo­ple are wak­ing up to that, but it doesn’t look like a de­ci­sive shift will hap­pen by 2021.”

The SNP’S defin­ing pol­icy of not charg­ing tu­ition fees for un­der­grad­u­ate cour­ses re­mains pop­u­lar. A poll ahead of the 2016 Holy­rood elec­tion found vot­ers gave it a rat­ing of 8.1 out of ten, be­hind only pledg­ing to in­crease fund­ing for the NHS.

How­ever, crit­ics say it has failed to im­prove ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion for all. The par­tic­i­pa­tion rate on de­greelevel cour­ses for 18-year-olds from the most de­prived ar­eas was twice as high in Eng­land in 2016 as it was in Scot­land.

And op­po­nents claim there is grow­ing ev­i­dence that a cap on univer­sity places for Scot­tish and EU stu­dents means pupils with top marks are be­ing un­fairly shut out.

Fig­ures for 2018 show 15,150 Scots failed to get a place at a Scot­tish univer­sity, equiv­a­lent to three in ten ap­pli­cants. The fig­ure is 71 per cent higher than when tu­ition fees were abol­ished.

Re­spond­ing to the fig­ures yes­ter­day, Tory ed­u­ca­tion spokes­woman Liz Smith said: “The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of the SNP’S free tu­ition re­mains the fact that there is dis­crim­i­na­tion within the sys­tem and an un­fair cap­ping sys­tem, which means that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of ex­tremely well-qual­i­fied, Scots-domi­ciled stu­dents are un­able to get a place.”

Brexit could al­low fu­ture Scot­tish Gov­ern­ments to end free tu­ition for the more than 3,000 EU stu­dents ac­cepted at Scot­tish uni­ver­si­ties each year, eas­ing that pres­sure.

A pol­icy re­view is be­ing car­ried out by Tory MSP Don­ald Cameron to pre­pare a man­i­festo for 2021 that can put Ms David­son into Bute House. How­ever, the source told The Scots­man that univer­sity tu­ition pol­icy was un­likely to change while Ms Smith re­mains in place, as she is con­sid­ered a strong sup­porter of the prin­ci­ple of fees.

An SNP spokesman said: “Just like on pre­scrip­tion charges, the Tories have railed against SNP pol­icy for years, but now seem to be re­al­is­ing that their plan to whack a price tag on ed­u­ca­tion is deeply un­pop­u­lar.

“The SNP scrapped tu­ition fees – in con­trast with the Tories’ record in Eng­land where young peo­ple face tu­ition fees of £9,000 a year.”

A Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tive spokesman said: “As with ev­ery party, we are un­der­tak­ing a pol­icy re­view and we will set out our pro­pos­als in the run-up to the 2021 Holy­rood elec­tion.”

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